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Gomorra: La serie (2014)
Gomorrah is not on the tourist map
We don't get to see this area of Italy much in films. In Gomorrah, we find ourselves in the ghetto--the projects--towering blocks of concrete crammed with small apartments festooned with the laundry out on the balcony. Surrounded by blatant drug traffic out in the open but protected by lookouts who'll yell "Mario" is they see a cop car. First impressions? Wow! The dealers take care of business without much police interference. You don't see any cops doing stop and frisk or harassing the poor or committing fearing for their lives executions. These criminal gangs have more reason to be scared of rival gang members who aren't beyond burning them out of their homes or cutting their throats. The rewards may be great but you'll have a short life.
Season 1 was full of unexpected plot twists and tense moments as two rival gangs, Salvastone vs Conte, duke it out over dominance. The most tragic character is Gennaro, son of Don Salvastone, a pudgy innocent not man enough to fight like his father. We connect most with Ciro, the lead thug in the Salvastone gang whose talents are valued but ambitions are frustrated by the family.
I'm not your number one crime genre fan, but this was as good as The Wire if not better, focusing largely on the gangs and their rivalries. Police are there to mainly cart off the dead bodies.
One last thing: the music is primo! Italian rap is much more melodic than its American counterpart. The haunting score to each episode's closing sequence is memorable. This takes place in an Italy you won't recognize, and I don't suspect many will want to seek it out the next time they visit Italy.
Wow! Intense Political Thriller
If you've never heard of this series before and skim the summary to decide whether to watch it, your first reaction is to probably guffaw and laugh it off. Norway turns away from fossil fuels, shuts down oil & gas production to promote thorium as an alternative energy source. The Green Party prime minister Berg is quite proud of his achievement until he is kidnapped by Russians in balaclavas and spirited away in a helicopter for a reality talk via Skype. He learns that his EU buddies have aligned with the Russians to use as their muscle to force Berg to resume oil production. Alternative energy is nice, but we must think about the economy, climate change be damned.
Berg decides to go along with all this to avert a war and publicly pretends to Norwegians that the Russian "guests" who've moved into the country to force the oil flow aren't occupiers and will leave in a few weeks. His cooperation doesn't go as planned, and almost immediately a resistance, first among the military then the people, is formed to fight the Russians and protect Norway's sovereignty.
This is no farce and the story as told instantly convinces you of its plausibility.Still, there are some aspects of the story that are a hoot. I'm told the Russians didn't like this series very much and complained about always being cast as the heavy in films and TV. The Americans, whom Berg believes are friends to Norway, come off badly...as usual. So much for the principles of sovereignty and commitment to solving climate change. Berg, as the cooperative prime minister, just loses it, decerebrating as the occupation becomes undeniable. He is chastised by his govt for undermining the party's original principles and therefore losing credibility. Credibility is very important to Norwegian politicians and the media. The woman who plays the Russian ambassador is magnificent! She knows how to play the game and push Berg and the other men around.
I'm eagerly awaiting Season 2.
The Blacklist (2013)
One Glorious Actor Can Make A Difference
The Blacklist isn't the best TV show you've ever seen--it's not edgy or innovative with an original storyline or remarkable cinematography. It doesn't have distinctive, stylish features. Into its 3rd season, The Blacklist survives, it thrives despite its being no Breaking Bad, or Mr. Robot, or Fargo, or The Knick. How is this possible? Just what is its appeal?
James Spader as Red Reddington is the answer and the sole reason this show is so watchable. He's not only the captain of the ship, he's the crew and the ship as well. In short, his performance is everything that makes this show great and I suspect he's somehow improved the template like performances of his supporting actors over time. The man is just a joy to watch and makes an improbable character--govt spy turned international criminal mastermind-- delightful and believable. Every actor on that show ought to thank Spader for allowing them the opportunity to make money on a show that would have been cancelled its first year--perhaps mid-season--if he were not on it. It's the darndest thing, the difference one actor can make.
Still, I wish that the creators had chosen a different actress to play the part of Elizabeth Keen, the FBI profiler that Red Reddington is inexplicably fond of. Someone like Zoe Saldana would have been brilliant casting and added dimension to the mystery of the Keen-Reddington relationship. And perhaps better casting for that part would have inspired the writers to shape her role more credibly and sent the show into the stratosphere. While Megyn Kelly may be a solid actress, she does not yet have the chops to make something of the oddly inconsistent writing for her role. Too late to change this up now.
I'm hardly the only fan who tunes in to enjoy Spader's performance, marveling at how the dreamy young actor with long blonde hair evolved into this very charming, balding older man who can act his *beep* off. I give him an Emmy for just Being There.
Prison shouldn't always be the only solution
Mark DeFriest began his tenure as a prisoner because he took tools his father said he could have before probate had dealt with his father's will. That he was arrested for this, due to a complaint by his stepmother, is just tragic. It reveals a criminal justice system that is unable to deal compassionately with the minor mistakes and misunderstandings of ordinary people, most who are unfamiliar and inexperienced with laws and legal processes. Not every mistake needs to addressed with prison time. In this case, a judge might have asked DeFriest to return the tools or pay for them...whatever. But sentencing a young guy to prison, convicting him of a felony, over taking his dead dad's tools speaks volumes about what's wrong with the criminal justice system in the U.S.
My other observation deals with DeFriest's mental status. While he's no lunatic, he's clearly different and prison has just damaged his psyche even more. A smart guy, childlike really, he got bored in prison and did things to alleviate that boredom--like invent contraptions to break out. Clearly he lacked the upbringing and the nature to behave normally and was never destined to lead a typical life. Solitary confinement for 25 years is hardly an appropriate remedy for his personality aberrations...or for anyone, really. There was, however, an opportunity to divert his intellect toward productive output, which would be rehabilitation, but our criminal justice system has turned into a torture chamber and away from helping people rehabilitate o adapt for productive living.
This doc is cleverly done. The animated parts underscore the childlike behavior of DeFriest, a kid in an adult body. It's also shocking and demonstrates why people flee the police who feel that prison and execution are solutions for almost everything.
American Odyssey (2015)
So far, so good
I found this first episode quite entertaining. A special unit finds out they've killed a prize terrorist and can't believe their good luck. In addition, they discover a laptop full of arabic intel though one item is in English and appears to be a money transfer from an American firm. Soon this unit gets a call from the top commander ordering them to stand down, telling them that the Intel unit will be there to take care of bodies and all material. They find this order odd but are told it comes from the highest of all high. And with this, their troubles begin.
Meanwhile, back in the states, a former US attorney runs into an old friend who casually tells him of an investigation into a corporation that his legal team represents. That attorney informs his colleagues of the info and soon gets shut down completely when the Corporate Man shows up and says they are all clear.
Bring in the Occupy Movement who are protesting all kinds of corporate and govt malfeasance and you've got a brew all connected to this Corporate/Military/Govt Conspiracy.
I give the series a number of points for showcasing the Occupy Movement! I give it more points for highlighting a Syriana-type corporate/govt conspiracy. The remaining points go to the entertainment values. So, yes, I'd recommend you watch it and see some truth in it.
Speechless with joy
I could tell just after the first 10 minutes that this film was an extraordinary experience. It is both intimidating and inspiring, packaged in a intense brew of bloody notes. Although it is specifically about a drummer and his teacher, it speaks to anyone who has struggled to soar beyond the mediocre and is willing to sacrifice everything to get there.
Wow. And my son thought I was tough as his Suzuki violin coach. While I would never go to Fletcher's extreme in shaping a musician, I do see his point. Too many people go at their craft half-heartedly and wilt under the faintest of criticism. Even worse, they become successful for unexceptional work product that only serves to limit their development.
The look on the drummer's father's face when he watched his son playing and realized that his son was more than a drummer--he was a galaxy.
Jimmy P. (2013)
Intriguing film about traumatic loss of culture and identity
Each of us springs from cultures that form our worldview, guide our behavior, create our sensibilities. But non-whites, especially, are coerced into discarding that identity and, through acculturation, becoming someone that they really aren't, someone who, over time, can no longer understand why they dream of a bear, a fox, and a baby and what in the world those images mean. An early scene in Jimmy P shows a white doctor asking Jimmy to respond to a picture he's shown of some white demonic guy with a knife in what looks like an operating room. Jimmy can't free associate anything from that picture. Not because he's crazy, but because it's meaningless to him. But later he can uncover meaning in a dream that includes a bear, a fox, and a baby.
Over a generation or two, Jimmy has lost many connections to his own past and cultural traditions. Although he can still sense them, he can't interpret them as they relate to his own psychological issues. He's broken laws that the dominant cultural doesn't regard as criminal at all. Not understanding this, he punishes himself even though freed by a white court of law.
Although Thunderheart may have been more entertaining, Jimmy P is enlightening about the psychic damage that happens when cultural and ethnic peoples are punished for who they are and made to ape other cultures to become accepted.
Halt and Catch Fire (2014)
Give this a chance
From watching just one episode, I'm intrigued enough to watch another. Although I'm hardly a computer specialist, I do admit that I've always been fascinated by the technology. I'm old enough to remember when they were purchased for the workplace and you had to learn commands and operate A & B drives using floppy disks. No internet. Out with the secretaries and IBM selectrics. You had to write your own reports and letters.
One of my favorite books is Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine, which won him all kinds of prizes, about the race to build the dream computer. So far, this show reminds me of that book.
Too early to judge whether this show will work out, but I liked the first episode.
Old Boy (2013)
Low scores from Park fans skew ratings
Twice I tried to watch the original Oldboy and neither time did I ever make it to the end. I'm not queasy about violence or detached, normally, from the world of the bizarre, but when you combine both elements with Korean, it all becomes a bit much. The Chan-wook Park Oldboy a level of bravery to watch much like that required to volunteer for surgery without anesthetic or painkillers.
But I was curious about Spike Lee's version and following him on Twitter, I told him (or whoever tweets for him) that I hoped it would be a bit less "hardcore." And it is.
(A funny anecdote. I entered the theater early and discovered 3 older, grandmotherly white women--probably in their 60s--all sitting together in the row in front of me. Amused, I walked over to them & said "excuse me, but you all don't look like the typical Oldboy fans to me." They all looked up at me with one face, "what are typical Oldboy fans?" One woman on the end was kinda smirking. I replied, "the original is somewhat brutal and bizarre--I tried to watch it twice and failed in both attempts." Then they started looking at each other and two pointed to the smirking woman. "She suggested it! We don't know anything about it!" Those women sat fully absorbed throughout the film.)
Which leads me to my next point. The Korean Oldboy was very much a spectacle that in many places was just really painful to sit through (if you're not the type to play gory video games on a regular basis). Lee's Oldboy does serve up some of that brutality, but there is a story attached to it that helps override the few (and less) gory parts. Is it better. On its own merits, it's okay. In fact, I probably will watch it again when it's released on DVD. It's not as spectacular and imaginative as Park's but it is engaging.
In some ways, it reminds me of the Pedro Almodavar film "The Skin I Live In," an equally bizarre story with an unexpected twist at the end and a film I truly admired. Don't let the low scores keep you away. It really is more worth your money than nearly all the other junk at the movies today.
The Fall (2013)
Excellent Combo of Prime Suspect & Red Riding Trilogy
And note that both my nods to great crime thrillers were directed to British productions. The hunt for a serial killer gets a complicated but teeth-gnashing treatment in this beautifully produced series, The Fall. Gillian Anderson plays Stella Gibson, a focused, rather humorless, detective who takes control of the investigation once she ascertains that recent murders are indeed the work on one killer. She doesn't have to fight the battles that plagued Jane Tennyson, however. The male officers pretty much cede control and follow her lead & respect her authority and insight. But she is like Tennyson in that she's sacrificed the personal for the professional, indulging in the occasional "sweet night" to satisfy her sexual desires.
The first episode will definitely hook you. It is as creepy as anything I've seen as we watch the killer stalk his victim and commit his crime. Like the film, The Boston Strangler, we know who the killer is upfront--the thrill is in wondering if he'll succeed in thwarting the hunt. On many levels, the killer remains enigmatic through the season.
How I wish American shows--like the recently launched Hannibal--were as top-drawer as this one. Wonderful writing, good subplots, deftly drawn characters that present realistically, not cartoonishly. It's astonishing that yet another serial killer hunt series can provide a story that so skillfully hooks an audience.